Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Delhi pogrom an
augury of things to come?

How from Kashmir to the Citizenship Amendment Act an increasingly fascist Indian State is sending the country hurtling backwards into saffron obscurantism. But is the Constitutional ideal of ‘unity in diversity’ really dead?

New Delhi, March 2020

Family in mourning after Delhi pogrom that claimed over 50 lives

Mourning the death of a family member after the February 2020 'riots' in Northeast Delhi that claimed over 50 lives

LEADERSHIP and statecraft has been in profound retreat ever since Donald Trump blundered onto the world stage to cock a snook at women, immigrants, the climate, and some trifling constitutional legalities – Ukraine, Russia, and the Justice Department be damned. Bad boys have since been on the rampage across the globe. The resultant unravelling of not just trade treaties and political accords but the far more critical moral glue that has held the world order together has been nothing short of spectacular.

Across the globe thuggish strongmen appealing to the basest ultranationalist sentiments are refashioning politics with apparatchiks in lockstep and Pavlovian fans baying for vulnerable scapegoats to berate, beat, or lynch. In the cult of The Great Leader there is scant regard for the truth, history, law, or constitutional injunction.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese

The Delhi ‘riot’ was political. It was a calibrated and chilling Kristallnacht, egged on by the police. As in the Gujarat massacre, this bore all the trappings of premeditated murder while the authorities looked away.

Charismatic post-War leaders who carried their countrymen with an unassailably just vision of universal values have their legacies in tatters.

Along with the Far Right tsunami, all shades of the political spectrum are seemingly morphing into a single nationalist stream, violent, intransigent, revanchist, and all too willing to break the rules. Trump has shown the way. And the emerging dramatis personae are demonstrating they are dab hands at political chicanery too.

The politics of today is fuelled by raw hate. Scapegoating is a classic ploy that seeks an evil ‘other’ to rally the nation. The more fear and righteous indignation stoked, the more malleable and unquestioning the base and the more frightening the consequences for the targets of mob ire.

Nowhere is this more cruelly apparent than in India where a rampant saffron state committed to obscurantist Hindutva ideals (promoting Hindu supremacy to the exclusion of Muslims and minorities) is flexing its limbs and tinkering with constitutional diktat – the Kashmir lockdown, mosque demolitions, and bloody civil carnage be damned.

The Delhi ‘riot’ was not, as stone-pelter definitions go, any sort of even contest between two opposed groups. Nor can it be explained away as spontaneous social outrage based on some perceived historical grievance. It was a pogrom. It was political. It was a calibrated and chilling Kristallnacht, egged on by the police. As in the Gujarat massacre, this bore all the trappings of premeditated murder while the authorities looked away. The Supreme Court was right in calling out the Delhi police for “lack of independence and professionalism” though, arguably, it did not go far enough beyond this sharp knuckle-rap.

That was left to outspoken Delhi High Court Justice S Muralidhar who lambasted the police and government for inaction. Orders for his transfer arrived the same night. The Delhi police report not to the city administration but to the Central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, two persons whose names appear with increasing frequency on the widescreen rolling credits of more and more dark whodunits and savage saffron dramas.

On the coattails of virulent anti-Muslim speeches by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, the carnage unfolded with breathless speed in Northeast Delhi and ran unchecked for over three days during Donald Trump’s visit with its widely televised pomp and pageantry at Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Taj Mahal (the ode to love by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan that BJP scions like Yogi Adityanath would like to relegate to the dustbin of history as ‘foreign’ tat).  

The ‘riot’ followed more than two months of peaceful sit-ins at Shaheen Bagh (in southeast Delhi) by women opposed to the highly discriminatory CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens) that seek to insidiously drive Muslims into a stateless limbo by challenging or invalidating their citizenship. An earlier Jamia Millia University protest had been crushed by a rampaging police force that entered the campus and rained blows and teargas on students and staff alike. This brought out citizens by the thousands across the country to voice their anguish and solidarity.

Northeast Delhi across the Yamuna River, was targeted by imported Hindu mobs that made a beeline in various communities for Muslim homes that were torched along with at least one mosque that reportedly suffered the ignominy of a tricolour and a saffron flag hoisted atop as if to press home the twin insult of an impotent constitution and a throttling Hindutva yoke.

Hindu and Sikh neighbours in Jaffrabad did the country proud by taking in Muslim families and transporting others to safety or hospitals. The violence that claimed over 50 lives was straight out of the February 2002 Gujarat playbook when over a thousand people (largely Muslim) were systematically butchered by Hindu mobs armed with voter lists pointing out Muslim neighbourhoods while the police and the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and state Home Minister Amit Shah looked the other way. To this day there has been no official apology or satisfactory explanation. Various other criminal charges and legal pursuit have been methodically quashed through the transfer of policemen and judges and the mysterious habit of prosecution witnesses turning hostile.

Delhi was Gujarat 4.0 coming on the heels of the Assam NRC trial balloon and the Kashmir lockdown following the secretive and abrupt revocation of Article 370 (on 5 August 2019) that guaranteed Kashmiris certain privileges including the preservation of their distinct and secular 'Kashmiriyat' culture based upon a syncretic, tolerant, Sufi-inspired Islam. While the state had its own mini-constitution it was subordinate to the Constitution of India and the Centre was paramount in matters of foreign policy, defence and communication.

This autonomy was very much within the spirit of the Indian Constitution whose framers created a ‘Union of States’ in a federal system with legislative and executive power shared by the centre and states. It is a structure designed for rich diversity to flourish without throttling by an overbearing Centre.

The BJP argument that the bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir, with Ladakh hived off (both states now Centrally controlled as Union Territories where any figment of popular electoral participation has been defenestrated) are, as a result, more closely integrated with India, is specious

Following the signing of Kashmir’s Instrument of Accession by Maharajah Hari Singh the state was absorbed into the Dominion of India on 27th October 1947 despite Pakistan’s botched post-Independence invasion in connivance with British officers that attempted to wrest the state by force. Kashmir was and always has been an integral part of India’s history, folklore, and culture. It was not in need of an armed siege, constitutional evisceration, mass incarceration of elected leaders, or an information and Internet blackout purportedly for its own good.

Compared with other Indian states, Jammu and Kashmir ranks third for life expectancy, a creditable eighth on the poverty scale and its 2017 human development index outperformed 18 other states including Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. A developing railway system was in place to link it economically and psychologically to the Indian heartland. Kashmir was in need of visionary governance and clean elections, something all parties from the National Conference to the Congress failed miserably at, opening the way for increased discontent, radicalisation, Pakistani meddling, infiltration, and jihadi adventurism. The brazenly rigged 1987 state election – by no means the first such travesty – proved to be a watershed event that opened the door to militancy and separatism.

The BJP argument that the bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir, with Ladakh hived off (both states now Centrally controlled as Union Territories where any figment of popular electoral participation has been defenestrated) are, as a result, more closely integrated with India, is specious. This was action by impunity. And the collateral damage to India is huge.

What Modi’s putsch achieved in one stroke was to a) alienate all Kashmiris, barring a few Pandits who yearn to return to their ancestral homes; b) radicalise a great many Muslim youth throughout the country at a time when Islam is in ferment; c) guarantee a hostile workforce, already vulnerable to terrorist threats; d) render almost impossible the procurement of private development capital; e) put India on the defensive internationally for abandoning its long-cherished moral principles in favour of brute force; and f) to offer an open invitation to all jihadis to seek soft targets in the heart of India. If the army could not secure Kashmir, who is to secure the country?

Interestingly, Articles 371 (A-J) of the Indian Constitution confer special status and autonomy in affairs like religion, social customs, and governance, to Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Goa. Indians cannot freely acquire land in places like Himachal and Tripura or in other sensitive areas. This is as it should be to protect diverse, fragile cultural eco-systems. It is a unique feature that separates India from a country like, say, a monolithic China. The abolition of Article 370 has sent a frisson of fear across the farthest reaches of the northeast, deepening the trust deficit and sowing further suspicion about the Centre’s long-term aims.

In all this it is important to make a clear distinction between Hindus and Hindutva. Hindus believe in a way of life that is tolerant and inclusive in a land where the mantra ‘unity in diversity’ has been taught since Independence from elementary school up. This harmonic faith, a largely undefined way of life, and the open society it created are what attracted everyone from The Beatles to modern intellectuals.

Hindutva is a blunt instrument that makes no pretence about its ambitions – to rid India of non-Hindus by stoking Islamophobic fear and marginalising minorities. It does this through a misreporting of history and mob muscle to a constant drone that glorifies a mythical past steeped in obscurantism, caste, male chauvinism, and pseudoscience. Thus you have a welter of mystifying pronouncements – that ‘cow milk contains gold’ and the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha was the ‘first example of plastic surgery.’ This backward charge is not quite a 21st century leap for a modernising powerhouse ranked the fifth largest economy in the world.

Hindutva’s roots stretch back to a 1920s treatise authored by the ideologue Vir Savarkar who is held up as a firebrand Hindu nationalist and freedom fighter. However, Savarkar played no role in the nonviolent Indian independence struggle against the British – in fact urging a boycott of Gandhi’s Quit India movement in 1942 – and he was an unabashed admirer of Hitler, Mussolini and the Fascist treatment of the Jews. This is very much a part of the BJP playbook.

Hindutva sees Muslims as foreign invaders, overlooking the fact that the Mughals made India their home – intermarrying with Hindus and giving the country some of the world’s most astonishing architecture – and that many of their most accomplished generals and ministers were Hindu

Hindutva sees Muslims as religious bigots and foreign invaders, overlooking the fact that the Mughals made India their home – intermarrying with Hindus and giving the country some of the world’s most astonishing architecture – and that many of their most accomplished generals and ministers were Hindu. It was a well oiled and much admired administration, not a theocracy. Akbar founded the eclectic Din-i-Ilahi faith, his Rajput wife was the mother of Emperor Jahangir, Sufi saints were (and are) equally revered by Muslims and Hindus, and even the much-reviled and austere idol-breaking Aurangzeb offered land grants and money for the construction and maintenance of certain Hindu and Jain temples as was State practice. The great wealth of the Mughals remained firmly in India.

The earliest contact with Islam in India was through Arab traders. Economic growth and cultural familiarity won converts in much the way that Indian cultural and economic influence – not military force – spawned Hindu and Buddhist-leaning kingdoms like Angkor (Cambodia), Champa (Vietnam), Langkasuka (Malaysia), and Sriwijaya, Majapahit and Bali (Indonesia). Not without good reason was Southeast Asia known as Indo-China, a reference to the two great cultures dominating the area.

Christians arrived in India circa AD52 with the arrival of Saint Thomas – one of the 12 Apostles of Christ – who landed in Kerala where the Cochin Jews were already settled. The Nazarenes (Nasranis), and various Syrian Christians like Marthomites and Jacobites were developing roots in India while Christianity was still struggling for a foothold in the West. Interestingly, the Church in India predates Protestantism (later imported by the British) by over 1,500 years.

These nuances are lost on the BJP and its RSS storm troopers. Just as the Aryans were the Holy Grail of the Nazis as they went about ‘racial cleansing’ and genocide on an industrial scale, the BJP sees Hindus (based on religion) as the sole ‘citizens’ of India. The rest are all deemed ‘foreigners’, fifth columnists, and anti-national pretenders who’d best hasten back to Pakistan or elsewhere before the people take things into their own hands. The implied threat of bodily harm to non-conformists, independent journalists, women, and non-Hindus is being calibrated across the country, in open sight. The armed forces and civil service are being steadily subverted. It is a curious pitch, totally at odds with the Constitution and with the country’s great nation builders who opposed Partition until it became inevitable.

The Preamble to the Constitution proudly declares India a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic’ committed to justice, liberty (of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship), equality and fraternity. Unlike Pakistan, a perilously failing state, India was not created on the basis of religion. It stands proudly for all Indians. That is the genius of a country that has produced so many global leading lights of finance, medicine, international politics, literature, philosophy, music, and science.

Delhi was no anomaly. It was the test run of an ugly majoritarian fascist engine primed to run in reverse at a time when the country needs to move swiftly forward to deal with, not myth and legend, but poverty alleviation, rapid economic growth, health, education, social emancipation, administrative reform, human rights, and justice. This is a time for progress not posturing, and rational debate not rhetoric. The multi-faith countrywide groundswell of protest against the CAA and NRC is living proof of ‘unity in diversity’ in action. It does the Constitution proud that in the face of a violently feudal saffron narrative, people are coming together to give robust expression to their ‘India’.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines and when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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Jyotsna Lall (17 March, 2020) – India
Thank you writing this piece. I enjoyed reading it - as much as one can enjoy reading the serious attempt to destroy the India one loves.
Rupert (17 March, 2020) – Japan
A shocking situation in a country known for its tragic past. It is time to look to the future for answers to the problems of today not myths and 'obscurantism' as the author notes
Srinivasan (12 March, 2020) – India
Your article has very well delineated the issues as it has developed making our country divided by religion. I remember the report on 2002 riots by the Editors Guild which you shared with me. I wonder how your great Dad have felt on the present day climate of hate and violence. I agree with you that what is happening today is part of a planned pogrom. Majoritarianism is the converse of democratic values. As one we grew during the days of our freedom struggle, it hurts me more when the present
ruling party are trying to rewrite our history and belittle the names of our great valiant leaders and their sacrifices and instead are creating pseudo persons as heroes.
Am sure your article will give people living abroad of the real
situation in India
Jeremy Bledsoe (12 March, 2020) – USA
An awful situation. Having visited India often I always assumed people got along and was constantly surprised by the variety of languages and even features. It is clearly more complicated. I wish my friends there the best and hope things improve
Brij (12 March, 2020) – India
The usual western point of view
Anup Kuruvilla (11 March, 2020) – India
Thank you for a well written article. What the BJP ( which is a party of largely upper caste Hindus) is attempting is to unite all Hindus against Muslims. Where they will ultimately fail is that the real issue in India is between the upper and lower castes and how they share the pie. Ultimately the vast majority of lower castes will see through this chicanery and desert them. Unfortunately the main opposition, the Congress is in shambles and it will take some time for a viable opposition to form but given India's long history of religious tolerance, this will eventually happen.
Joshua Lev (11 March, 2020) – Israel
Excellent article that puts a lot of history and current affairs in very lucid perspective. India is an ancient country that has seen its share of extremes whether due to religion or politics. It is a great country and I am sure it will survive. Do the Kerala Jews still exist?
Richard Nuttall (11 March, 2020) – UK
A very interesting article and well-presented facts. As someone who has visited India frequently, I have seen and sensed the changes among friends and colleagues. The Delhi incident is a blot on the police if it is true they participated in the mob attack. I wish my Indian friends the best in these difficult times
Pamela Philipose (11 March, 2020) – India
A serious look at the tragedy and complexity of the pogrom (the death toll indicates how overwhelming destructive of Muslim life and well-being)
that Delhi -- the capital of the country -- witnessed in the fourth week of February. Thank you for writing it, Vijay Varghese.

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